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Win Or Lose, A Place To Show


May 15, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

Henry Roman, formerly a jockey, watching a race while at an OTB parlor in the Bronx.

PHOTO: Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

By noon throughout the city, the faithful find their way to faded green storefronts. They are mostly men, and they have some thing things in common: time on their hands, money in their pockets, and the willingness to spend both trying to pick a winning horse.

There are 78 Off-Track Betting outlets in New York City. And most of them - they began opening in 1971 - have a solidly entrenched, endlessly colorful customer base.

Most of the men are retired, jobless, or have otherwise temporarily absented themselves from the workplace. Most have some disposable income and indeed wind up disposing of it.

They come not only seeking a winning horse, but also seeking familiar faces and conversations: about long shots and favorites and track conditions and what ever happened to the neighborhood.

And together with their collection of cohorts across the city they placed roughly $1 billion in bets over the last year.

A recent tour of four branches in three boroughs showed that, to some customers, the branches are a place to repair, to serve their gambling addiction. But to many, they are social clubs, where wagering is as much a social as a financial endeavor. And today, with the running of the Preakness Stakes, they are apt to be even more alive and interesting than usual.

In the Bronx, Advice

Under the elevated train along Westchester Avenue in the Bronx a group of men leaned against a 1978 Buick LeSabre and sipped from foam cups of espresso and scribbled in racing forms.

Some clustered around a short man with shined black boots, a white straw hat and the stature of a retired jockey: Henry Roman, 67. He is just over five feet tall and weighs 148 pounds, 50 more than his professional riding weight.

Like many customers at this branch on the avenue just north of the Cross Bronx Expressway, Mr. Roman speaks only Spanish and is a retired horseman with few other places to go. He began his jockey career in Puerto Rico at age 18 and then worked in Miami. He is a valued commodity here.

"People here respect the advice of a man who has worked around horses," he said. "The people here talk about all these different things, and you can't blame them for it. They don't know what to talk about."

Approaching the 1 p.m. post time for the first race at Aqueduct, several dozen men flocked to the central television screen.

Neither of Mr. Roman's two bets - a $2 daily double and a $2 exacta - benefited from his experience in the saddle. The tickets fell into the gutter next to the LeSabre.

In the end, horses are merely dice with legs, he said.

"It's nice being asked for advice," he said, "but the only thing you learn as a jockey is that horses are completely unpredictable."

Orlando Quinones, 45, from the South Bronx, said he favored this OTB branch because of the many customers here who have worked at New York-area tracks, and in Florida and Puerto Rico.

"I live closer to other OTB's, but I come here," said Mr. Quinones, who added that he was a retired blackjack dealer. "It's one of the best shops in the city. We play the horses hard."

"There's a lot of firsthand knowledge here," he said, pointing out several former track hands. "A lot of people worked as jockeys or stable workers at Belmont, Aqueduct, the Meadowlands. Of course, that doesn't mean they're going to win. Nobody really wins in this game, you know that."

Roberto Oller, 61, a postal supervisor born in Puerto Rico, said he cared little for tips he might pick up, or for methodical wagering.

"Nobody has a formula," said Mr. Oller, who has been following horse racing for 52 years and is a daily customer at this branch. "You have to come for fun. If you're coming for money, something's wrong."

In Manhattan, Pure Science

In downtown Manhattan, on a stretch of Lafayette Street on the western edge of Chinatown, there is an OTB branch opposite the Excellent Dumpling House.

By about 2 p.m., after the second race at Aqueduct, there were dozens of men outside the branch smoking. Many local horseplayers come to this branch as an alternative to the busy Chatham Square parlor in Chinatown, which OTB officials say has the largest intake of all OTB branches.

Not that Lafayette Street, a two-floor branch, is a study in serenity. The ground-floor room is crowded and musty. The customers are mostly Chinese men. Several of them, dressed in leisure suits or blazers, sat against a glass-block wall. An elderly man dressed in neat slacks and loafers squatted on the tile floor staring up at the simulcast screens.

Just before the third race at Aqueduct, a man in a soiled white kitchen uniform rushed in, copied down the latest scratches and odds and placed his bets.

Mark Eng, 57, a postal supervisor and a regular customer here, explained, "This isn't your typical OTB."

"A lot of these guys can't even read the racing form," he said. "They just look at the numbers: the odds and previous times for a horse. They give the jockeys Chinese names, any names, so it's easier to discuss them."

"When you've done this long enough, you just bet on instinct anyway," he continued. "A lot of these guys have moved out of Chinatown but still come here to see the same old faces and to pass a few hours of daily life."

Another customer, Eddie Eng, said, "It's a better way to play, with just numbers. It's purer, like a science."

This Mr. Eng, a 70-year-old retired waiter, had no real chemistry going. His bet, a trifecta, had the right three horses but in the wrong finishing order. He missed out on a $600 payout. He stood in the larger room upstairs, with its banks of big windows, and explained that the place served as a social center for many elderly Chinatown residents.

"The old people have no place to go," he said. "Every morning, I exercise in the park and then come here. I don't want to stay home."

A 78-year-old man with a cap set cockeyed on his head heard this and began ranting: "Everyone comes here to lose." The customers began tittering and shaking their heads as if they'd seen it all before.

"I've lost here my whole life," said the man, known to regulars as Mr. Chin. "I've lost a half-million dollars here."

Downstairs, a group bantered in Cantonese with a big, ginger-haired Irishman whose Chinese had a certain Bowery burr. The man, John Andersen, 43, said he learned Cantonese growing up in Chinatown, where he now owns several sewing factories.

"They used to call them sweatshops, but mine isn't," he said. "I pay too much, and the only one sweating there is me."

"Very few of these guys even speak English, or at least won't let on that they do," said Mr. Andersen, who answers to Red. As the horses rounded the back stretch in the fourth race at Aqueduct, he began repeating: "Dead, I'm dead. I'm dead. I'm dead."

The No. 5 horse ran out of the money.

A short, hunched-over man followed Mr. Andersen around the room, heckling him. "You can't even write a winner down on a piece of paper, Red," he said. "All your talk, you should have been a schoolteacher."

In Carroll Gardens, Good Fellows

Customers at the OTB branch at Court and Sackett Streets in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, said that it used to be a place where characters like those in the gangster movie "Goodfellas" gathered. The neighborhood changed and now it's just good fellows.

"This place is mostly old geeps," said a city bus driver standing outside the door. "Geeps, you know, good old Italian guys from the neighborhood."

He handicapped both the horses and the bettors as they arrived.

"See now, here comes the Mush," he said, then shouting in the door: "Hey, Frankie, guess who's here? The Mush. Every time he comes, this guy, I start to lose. Go home, Mush. Please go home."

Inside, Gerry LoVerdi, a retired city police sergeant who spent much of his career with the vice squad, whipped out a wad of bills thick enough to choke a thoroughbred.

"I haven't caught a winner in seven months," complained Mr. LoVerdi, known in the neighborhood as Gerry Moonbeam. He has a thin mustache and wore his gold chains outside his dark, collarless designer shirt.

"They've faded away now, but a lot of heavy hitters from the old neighborhood used to come and bet big money here," he said. "At one time, this branch had one of OTB's highest intakes. These guys bet a lot of money, but you know something, they were all nice guys. Because of them, your daughter could walk these streets and be safe."

A large man walked in wearing a shiny, black Members Only jacket with an ornate Trump Plaza logo on it. Mr. LoVerdi teased the man: "He works in Atlantic City, but he makes his donations here."

Then there was Gaetano D'Amato, 68, a retired longshoreman. His forearms were covered with tattoos, but he was dressed like a gentleman, in a fine straw hat and a silk ascot.

"I was born and lived my whole life here, on the same block on Woodhull Street," he said, looking out the window at a young man in a T-shirt and long sideburns pushing a stroller. "But this neighborhood is really changing."

Mr. LoVerdi called over a guy named Mickey, who wanted nothing to do with any newspaper interview. "Ay, get that camera out of here," he said. "What do you want with me? I've been losing money on the horses for 40 years."

Then Tony Alimeni, 79, came over with something to say.

"They call horseracing the sport of kings, but even a king could go poor at the track, and a poor man can get rich as a king," said Mr. Alimeni, known as Tony the Dancer, because he used to teach dance . "My complaint is, with everything they give these horses now for their circulation and whatnot, they treat the horses better than us humans."

In Brooklyn, Long Shots

The OTB parlor on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn is next to the Emmanuel Deliverance Temple. The church door was closed the other night, but there was lively preaching among the betting congregation in this long betting parlor filled mostly with Caribbean men, some impeccably dressed, others spackle-dusted in jeans and work boots.

One man was trying to convert his friends to his belief that the jockey in the last race was conspiring to hold back his horse down the stretch.

In another group, the men were testifying that some tellers at the branch were scheming against the customers by smoothly skimming their winning bets.

"There are a multitude of sins that go on in this place," proclaimed Terence Knight, 55, of Flatbush, "and there are evils that go on behind that window over there. I say they should investigate this place from the top down."

"If you don't tip some of these tellers, they steal from you," said Mr. Knight, an immigrant from Trinidad and an out-of-work pharmacist. "They can do it here in Flatbush because it's Flatbush, but believe me, this would not stand in other, political savvy neighborhoods."

Another bettor, Angel Diaz, 58, from Flatbush, had a different experience. He said that a female teller had once mistakenly given him the wrong betting receipt; he only realized the error when the horses on the receipt (not his intended picks) hit for $1,500.

"I wound up dating that teller for three years," he said.

Luck was not his lady this day, however. Mr. Diaz said he had blown the remains of his workers' compensation check on losers.

"I'm so broke, I got to walk home," he said.

Bertram Blue, 62, a hospital worker from East New York, chimed in, saying he liked to bet long shots.

"Long shots make you feel good," Mr. Blue said. "I'm a poor man, so I'm looking for a decent payoff." His biggest came a few years back, he said, when a $20 bet on the Kentucky Derby won him $17,000. It went toward a down payment on his house.

Outside, Edmond Clarke, 43, from Flatbush, stood on the sidewalk smoking a big cigar and explaining his betting process.

"I have my methods, man," said Mr. Clarke, a Guyanese immigrant with long dreadlocks and black, wraparound sunglasses. "First you have to look at the horse's grandparents and the great grandparents." Another secret to his success, he said, was betting at this very branch.

"I get my money steady here, man," he said. "I can't get the same feeling at the other OTB's."

There was, though, one problem about the branch, he said.

"It's not like the track," he said. "Here, I have to sneak in my beer in a soda bottle."

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